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From 75-B to the big stage

January 06, 2012

-Photo by AFP

US President Thomas Jefferson once said: “I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.” Pakistan's newly-found, hard-working paceman Aziaz Cheema is a prime example of this proverb.

The 32-year-old has stormed to the front of the pack of fast bowlers in the country, on sheer hard work. Just a few years ago, he was discarded by a selector who remarked derogatorily that at 30 and with his relatively short height, Cheema had no future.

But the inborn quality in Cheema, never to lose heart in an adverse situation – inculcated in him by his lawyer father and inspirational mother – has helped him surge to not only represent Pakistan but also get acclaim from all quarters. Since making his Test debut against Zimbabwe, Cheema has endeared himself to the coaches, captain and all his team-mates. Even the once unfavorable media sing praise for his hard work.

“Cheema always looks hungry for success,” said former coach Waqar Younis, who preferred the right-armer in the eleven against Zimbabwe in the only Test last September. It created a furore in the media, who wanted the experienced left-armer Sohail Tanvir to play. Younis’ confidence paid off after Pakistan rolled over the hosts.

“He showed a lot of hunger and with eight wickets in the match he fulfilled the confidence we reposed in him,” said Younis.

Cheema has not looked back since that Bulawayo Test. He was the player of the series in the one-day international (ODI) series against Zimbabwe and performed well in Pakistan's clean sweeps against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, whenever he was selected. And despite Wahab Riaz's comeback for the upcoming series against England, Aizaz is still favourite to be in the starting line-up.

Cheema’s story follows that of the many fast-bowlers in the country that have come through out of the blue. Born in a small village called 75-FB near Sargodha, he was brought up and educated in Lahore. He was lucky that a proper mentor was at hand at home as his mother, a teacher by profession, guided him in his studies. He studied hard and since most of his family members were in the education sector, he got little support when he picked up a bat and a ball.

“My mother and father wanted me to study,” the fast-bowler recalls.

“But cricket was my passion and I wanted to make my name but not at the risk of my studies. That's why I worked hard in both cricket and studies.” After completing his bachelors in commerce (B. Com), Cheema interned at a private bank but would sleep with a cricket ball. In 1996, Pakistan's quarter-final defeat against India at Bangalore in the World Cup hurt him so bad that it strengthened his resolve of making a name in the sport.

From Model Town Greens club in Lahore, he graduated to PIA and also played for Muridke Academy, where former Test paceman Aqib Javed burnished his talent.

“Muridke was a good place to learn and Aqib Javed worked on my action, run-up and increased my confidence level. That helped me a lot and I started to perform well in the first-class seasons.”

“I was determined to play for Pakistan so I worked very hard in first-class matches.”

“I used to make plans, while going in the team bus for a match. I would set a goal to take six wickets and do my best to live up to that plan.”

Hard work pays, always. Cheema became one of the leading fast bowlers in first-class cricket in Pakistan and it was in 2010 that his 56 wickets in just seven matches earned him a place for the West Indies-bound team. Bad luck struck on the eve of team's departure when he fell unfit and had to be replaced. But that too didn't dishearten him.

He bided his time until the tour of Zimbabwe and got his well deserved chance. “I am very happy to be in the national team.”

“I still have a long way to go and have many challenges to face,” Cheema says, but he is ready for the England challenge.

“I never get overawed by big names like (Kevin) Pietersen, (Andrew) Strauss or (Alistair) Cook, I just want to do my basics and if I am doing my basics I will get success,” said Cheema who wishes to bowl at Indian maestro Sachin Tendulkar soon.

“The best batsman I have bowled to is Kumar Sangakkara. He is very balanced and has a great technique. I wish I could bowl to Sachin and I am a firm believer that with my hard work I will come good against him.”

Shahid Hashmi is a senior sports journalist based in Karachi.